By Donna Orsuto
Rome - This year’s Lenten journey was quite different from 2020. Despite being plunged into lockdown once again in Italy, we knew our community of scholars could journey with us on the Caelian Hill, without the urgent need for some to return home like last year.
“We are all in the same boat,” and “on this boat…are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying ‘We are perishing’ (v. 38), so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.” These were the words spoken by Pope Francis on March 27, 2020, in an extraordinary moment of prayer, alone in St. Peter’s Square.
There is still much uncertainty — the pandemic continues — yet here we are in 2021, looking towards Easter with the hope of life renewed.
As a community, The Lay Centre gathers weekly for our Wednesday evening Eucharistic celebrations and daily for compline. For our Lenten journey, one of our residents, Monica Borsari, encouraged everyone to stop, reflect and pray more intensely, by joining the universal Church in praying together first vespers of Sunday. Before vespers, Monica, who recently obtained her licence in spiritual theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, explained the profound meaning of some liturgical gestures, which may have become commonplace for many of us.
The first gesture, standing, is the liturgical attitude par excellence. It is the position of the risen person in the image of Christ, who “rose” from the tomb on Easter and raised us from the dead (cf. Eph 5:14). By standing for prayer, we witness to the resurrection of Christ, in which we already take part on Earth through baptism, before joining him for eternity.
The second gesture is the Sign of the Cross. Before the fifth century, Christian artists did not represent Jesus crucified because the cross was an instrument of infamous torture. However, the Sign of the Cross as an act of faith came into use in the second century as an affirmation that our belief in Jesus’ passion and death on the cross — and his resurrection on the third day — are the means for our salvation. Originally, Christians would form the shape of a small cross on their forehead.
The third gesture, raised arms and hands outstretched, is present in various religious traditions and evokes praise, joy, acclamation and the search for God, who is in heaven. An important gesture for the priest during different moments of the Mass, it is also the custom in some places for the faithful to make the same gesture when praying the Our Father.
The fourth gesture is the sign or kiss of peace, which the Apostle Paul urged the early Christians to exchange in his letters: “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you” (Rom 16:16; cf. 2 Cor 13:11-12; 1 Thes 5:25-26). This liturgical gesture expresses the love and peace that the Lord gives his disciples and that his disciples must bear in their hearts for one another.
In addition to our regular monthly food delivery for the poor in our neighbourhood through our local parish, Santa Maria in Domnica, we were joined by some ladies from the Vatican Ambassadorial Women’s Association, who meet monthly for Bible Study organized by The Lay Centre, to promote “Project Jonah.”
Lent is a time for giving and caring. In his 2021 Lenten Message, Pope Francis speaks of caring for the other: “Love rejoices in seeing others grow. Hence it suffers when others are anguished, lonely, sick, homeless, despised or in need. Love is a leap of the heart; it brings us out of ourselves and creates bonds of sharing and communion.”
Project Jonah raised money to purchase new shoes and clothes for young migrants and refugees at the Centro Giona in Rome, where one of our resident scholars, Philip Astephan, also works.
In his Lenten message, the pope writes: “Love is a gift that gives meaning to our lives. It enables us to view those in need as members of our own family, as friends, brothers or sisters. A small amount, if given with love, never ends, but becomes a source of life and happiness. Such was the case with the jar of meal and jug of oil of the widow of Zarephath, who offered a cake of bread to the prophet Elijah (cf. 1 Kgs 17:7-16); it was also the case with the loaves blessed, broken and given by Jesus to the disciples to distribute to the crowd (cf. Mk 6:30-44). Such is the case too with our almsgiving, whether small or large, when offered with joy and simplicity.”
Towards the hope of the resurrection
In our suffering world, we can still stand, make the Sign of the Cross and raise our arms, though we can no longer greet each other with a handshake, a hug or a kiss, due to restrictions during the current pandemic. However, in our understanding of the meaning of this gesture, we can simply walk with and comfort the other with a smile or some other small act of charity, and this way journey together towards the hope of the resurrection.
Image: 'Descent into Hell' (1999) Redemptoris Mater Chapel, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. We are grateful for the permission to use this image, granted by the Dicastery for Communication, Vatican and the Centro Aletti. Mosaic “Realized by the Atelier of Art and Architecture Centro Aletti (www.centroaletti.com)”